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Seamus McDonagh – The Fighter Still Remains

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Seamus McDonagh

Seamus McDonagh

The Fighter Still Remains

by Ronald Sklar

Photography by Eugene Gallegos

“I did feel like I was Rocky,” Seamus (pronounced Shay-mus) McDonagh was admitting to me, but only after I insisted. “It was my nickname in school, after Rocky Mariano.”

The other Rocky – the guy picked out of obscurity to touch gloves with the heavyweight champion of the world – was re-made into a real-life story on June 1, 1990 at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. That’s when Seamus, as a mere cruiserweight, got into the ring with Evander Holyfield.   Not too shabby for a poor boy from Ireland, who drank a bit too much and held an honors degree in English literature from St. John’s University.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” he said, “but a lot has happened since then. It was a great event. It was a memorable night.”

Seamus McDonagh

A lot has indeed happened since then, as the Irish former boxer is experiencing a sort of renaissance on the popular Current TV. A video that was shot of him has cruised to the number one spot on that site. But more about that later.

Today, with eleven years of sobriety under his belt, and his boxing days long behind him, he is into, among other things, transcendental meditation. In fact, he meditated before our interview, right there in the eighth-floor lounge of the Marriott Marquis in the middle of New York City. New Yorkers have seen it all, but not yet have they seen a former fighter at total peace with himself and the universe among the tourists and the businessmen. He had his wool cap pulled over his eyes and his large arms were folded. Nobody seemed to mind.

While I waited for him to find his center, I listened to a podcast of radio’s The Joey Reynolds Show, of which he has been a memorable guest.

He then returns to this dimension, and proceeds to tell me his story, with a charm that only the Irish are capable of: “My dad was a good boxer in England and he wanted my brother and I to become [boxing] champions. We didn’t have a lot of money, and he thought that this would be a way for us to make it in this world.”

In 1981, his father took him and his brother, John, to America – more specifically Chicago – where John won the Golden Gloves in 1982 as a middleweight. As for Seamus, “I didn’t like boxing at all. But I was afraid of [my father]. He never hit us, but I was afraid of him all the same.”

Seamus McDonagh

Boxing may not have been a passion for Seamus, and he took a serious detour from it by earning an honors degree in literature. Not exactly Rocky-like, but that’s what makes him even more unique than his story should allow. In the meantime, he kept his nose to the grindstone and, by 1989, started gaining some serious attention in the boxing world.

He says, “I was a cruiserweight. I was a weight below Holyfield. He was number one in the world of heavyweights when I fought him. But in ’89, I was ranked number three as a cruiserweight in the world. But then I had a couple of fights with heavyweights. So, they ranked me with the heavyweights. So, Tyson went to a Japan to fight against Douglas and got knocked out. They looked at the rankings and saw that I had a following on the East Coast and asked me to fight [Holyfield]. I said, ‘But I’m a cruiserweight.'”

Didn’t matter. Because there’s no business like show business. And the promoters could smell a sizzling match before the grease hit the griddle.

“My father [who was no longer managing his career at that point] was against the fight,” he said. “[My father] said, ‘let’s win the title first in your own weight division.’ He didn’t think I was experienced enough.”

But the show must go on. And Seamus was used to doing what he didn’t want to do.

“It was terrifying,” Seamus recalls. “I quit drinking for a month before the fight. Physically, I was in great shape, but psychologically, I wasn’t prepared at all. Not at all. The biggest fight of my life. The biggest, my huge day of my life. I tried to prepare mentally, which you need to do for a big event like that. I mean, presidents, when they make speeches, they take beta blockers and they get prepared that way. Nerves.

“I marched into the ring with a pipe band. A lot of publicity. All the celebrities of the day were there. I myself didn’t feel like a celebrity. When you’re the boxer, you’re kind of isolated. I didn’t read a lot of the papers and I was away at training camp upstate. I was unaware of all the hype, but it was one of the biggest fights of the year in 1990.

“As soon as the bell went, all the nerves hit me. I saw [Holyfield] across the ring and hit him with a left hook right away. I hurt him right away. But the nerves hit me so badly I could barely stand up. So, he hit me on the top of the head and I went down on one knee. I was just so nervous. I got through the first round okay and did a little better on the second round.

Seamus McDonagh

“For some reason, my trainer wasn’t in my corner for the third and fourth rounds. But whoever was there, they motivated me. I think it was Tommy Gallagher, the cut man, I think he was talking in my ear.

“I got a great shot in the fourth round. My best punch. The first thing [Holyfield] said in the post-interview is that guy has some left hook.

“I got knocked down, and I never really got knocked down before, and the first thought going through my head was, if I stay here, it will all be over. But I couldn’t. I had risen off the canvas. I put my hands up and said I was okay, but I was a 13-1 underdog. The whole stadium stood up – [Donald] Trump was there. He came into my dressing room after the fight and said, ‘you made so many fans tonight.'”

Seamus McDonagh’s fan base continues to grow to this day.   And the story goes that Seamus lasted with Holyfield only to the fourth round. But that was just a boxing match. There were more rounds to face in life itself, including a knock-down, drag-out fight against the bottle and a series of go-nowhere jobs.

His renaissance began just recently, with a chance meeting with indie-film producer Sandi Bachom, herself a recovering alcoholic. She made a few films of Seamus, which found their way onto Current TV.

“I knew nothing about boxing,” she said, “but I did know about being an alcoholic and getting knocked down and getting back up and still laughing.  I was intrigued by this gentle, handsome man with perfect teeth and not a mark on his face, how that could be the same guy in that violent photo. And so, I was to learn the paradoxical grace and brutality of ‘The Sweet Science’ from the man himself.

“So, I asked if I could interview him and in the next days, I shot two short videos which I uploaded to Current TV.

Seamus McDonagh

“I was to learn that Seamus had only ever been knocked down twice in his whole career, once by Peter Reynolds when he was 11 in Ireland and once by Evander Holyfield.  But when you meet this guy, he is the kindest, gentlest, handsomest guy, I’ve seen his fights and I still can’t believe it’s the same person.

“Neither Seamus or I were prepared for what happened when I asked him to read the lyrics to Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’, I was hand holding the camera tight on his face and before the last line, he stops, for thirty seconds, an eternity, his voice breaking, he speaks the last lines and a single tear rolls down that handsome cheek: ‘I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.’

“It is without question, the most powerful moment I have ever, maybe ever will, capture.  We were both crying when I cut the camera.  It was as if Paul Simon wrote the song for him.

“The second video, ‘Shadow Boxer,’ is 1:53 seconds long. We shot it in 10 minutes – under the FDR Drive – of him shadow boxing to my camera with a voice over about the Holyfield fight and his career. To our surprise, it got over 4,000 votes sending it to #1 on Current TV and is now running in 38 million households!

As for Seamus these days, he divides his time between New York City and San Francisco.

He says, “I have a marketing business, which is a shoeshine concession at Moscone Center. We travel the country. We set up shoeshine chairs with automated back massagers to attract customers to the booths. We also supply singers, comedians, actors to work in the booths. There is about thirty of us. Check us out on”

His leisure time consists mostly of seeing friends and meditating. He says, “I’m not much of a reader. I’m more of a writer. But I love literature and I love the arts. I love anything creative. I’m constantly writing down little tidbits for movies. But I’ve never compiled them all together. When I write my fears on paper and when I meditate, something happens in my brain. I feel a power. That’s what inspires me. I write down my fears on paper first. Whatever is bothering me, I write it down and meditate. Every fear is equal. It’s all in your head.”

Let him tell you all about it the next time you attend a trade show, and his shoeshine booth may be there. He’ll be happy to talk boxing with you, or anything else that is on your mind. For Seamus, he has found – at last – true inner peace.

“What is success in life? To laugh often,” he muses. And of his one big night in the ring, he figures, “What happened happened. I don’t regret a thing.”

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 23, 2007.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2007 Eugene Gallegos. All rights reserved.#2 © 2007 Eugene Gallegos. All rights reserved.#3 © 2007 Eugene Gallegos. All rights reserved.#4 © 2007 Eugene Gallegos. All rights reserved.#5 © 2007 Eugene Gallegos. All rights reserved.

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